This being the few days before our sixth wedding anniversary, I'm reflecting on and reviewing the craziness of the story that brought us together. I'm surprised to realize that I've never put it in the blog page, so now seems an appropriate time.
I’m going to try to only write the essentials so it's not too bogged down (talking to you, Charles Dickens). My spiritual testimony is wrapped up in this story too, so I promise that it does matter to the story and does have a point.
And also, I must add the disclaimer that it is not advisable to go to a monastery and expect to claim a husband.
So here we go.
When I was 8 years old, my dad (who is a First Church of God / non-denom pastor) went on a retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, KY. I went with my mom to pick him up when it was over, and when we went into the guest house, there was an older monk there with my dad named Brother Rene Richie (I've since learned that his given name before his entrance to the monastery was Alfred). I had brought a picture I had drawn of Mary in case I saw a monk there to give it to, and I gave it to him. In return, he gave me a Christmas cactus because he knew that I was coming along with my mom to pick up my dad. His particular calling was to pray for and minister to children - especially abused children, even though he didn't have much contact with youngsters at the Abbey. We hit it off right away, and from that point on, we became penpals. Throughout the years we would visit him there at the Abbey every so often, and I wish it had been more often.
Okay, fast forward to college. I went and visited Br. Rene (who was now in his early 80s) in my Junior year, and we pretty much spent the whole day together. He gave me a rosary he had made, and gave me the book he had written that had all his poems and musings in it (some of the pages were still hand-written), and also a book he had written about Mary and Joseph answering Jesus’ questions when He was a child. Because of Br. Rene’s call to pray for abused and hurting children, I truly believe that God had blessed him with the gift of innocence. Reading his writing was like reading something out of such an untouched place of purity. Anyway, I told him I had written a book about three monks when I was in high school and I’d like for him to read it at some point. He said that he would like for me to bring it to him, and bring him back his one and only copy of his writings once I had made copies for myself.
I didn’t get back to the Abbey for quite a while, and the week before my Senior violin recital, I called his office (where he made rosaries) to tell him about it. There was no answer, even though I called during his office hours. I had a strange feeling in my gut, so I went on the Abbey’s website, and I saw that Brother Rene's funeral was happening at that very moment. It was pretty devastating. I hadn’t known that he was sick. It had been throat cancer.
By my last year of college, I was dealing with the early onset of PTSD, which was caused by a long-term relationship (not romantic) from an authority figure in my major. I look back and understand now that this person was a narcissist / psychopath, and those type of people usually pick one person to really be their doormat or scapegoat for all their unhealthy behavior. And because of my major, I had to deal with the person extensively almost every day. There were also some extra-curricular pressures I was placing on myself because of some family situations. The thought was always, "Don't rock the boat. Don't do anything to rock the boat."
I had been praying since the age of thirteen to work in the mission field, specifically on the Navajo reservation out west, and the campus ministry I was a part of had gotten me in touch with a school that was basically waiting for me to graduate so I could go out there. I'd visited twice and spent time there at the school on the reservation, and that was the plan for post-graduation life. So I thought, “I’ll just stick it out and just get the degree as quickly as I can here so I can get there.” I didn't want to transfer in fear of the possibility of losing that connection. I had dreamed and prayed about doing that for so long after I had read Rich Mullins’ biography, An Arrow Pointing to Heaven.
Around a month before I graduated, the school at the reservation contacted me and told me that they had been taken over by a new organization, and they had all the employees necessary, and no positions to fill. I was no longer needed. I frantically looked into other schools on the reservation and tried to contact whoever I could, but there was no response from anywhere else when I reached out. That was when the PTSD began to take shape. Really severe panic attacks would wake me up in the middle of the night and I’d just shake really hard for a few hours, convinced that I was having a weird heart attack, and then I’d sometimes manage to go back to sleep once they passed. The closer I got to graduation, the more often they occurred and the longer they lasted and the less sleep I got. It got bad, and I was tired and scared. I tried not to think about all that time I could have transferred to get away from the unhealthy person that had been pretty mentally abusive and I hadn't because I had needed to keep the school's association to the Navajo reservation. All my eggs had been in that basket, and now there was suddenly no basket and no eggs. Just time that felt completely wasted.
I managed to graduate, and I moved back to Dover, TN where the PTSD finally hit like a bucket of ice once I was in a place of safety. I had graphic nightmares every night of being strangled or suffocated or being abandoned in a small place where oxygen was quickly running out and no one knew I was there. I'd have up to 6 severe panic attacks every day. If the air conditioner came on or I heard an unexpected noise, I would crumple to the floor and sob. I went to a doctor and tried to sort of explain what was happening, and he prescribed valium. I didn't take it because I already felt mentally dead from lack of sleep and the living nightmare of being mentally ill and not who I'd always known myself to be, and valium felt like it would only make my mental isolation and deadness feel worse. Every day felt like I was living in an alternate reality that I couldn't wake up from or describe to anyone. The nightmares of being in a locked metal tube alone and running out of oxygen felt very real not only when I slept but when I was awake throughout the day.
One of the only things that held me together that summer was teaching violin. There were a lot of days when I walked to my car and I'd have to physically make myself reach for the car door handle despite my hand shaking like it was below zero outside, and say out loud, "Do not let it win. Do not let it win. I will live. I will live." Teaching violin were the few hours I felt closest to normalcy. I'm so glad I made myself do it despite being so mentally ill.
My deeply-rooted faith that I had worked so hard for and lived in all my life was almost nonexistent at this point. I was so angry at God, if He even existed. I played fiddle for some Baptist revivals around the county that summer and all the preachers made God sound hateful and judgmental (I know not all Baptists preach this way but it's uncanny how that summer, that was the only kind of preachers that were speaking at that particular revival). Even though I had not been raised that way at all, that kind of preaching obviously was not helpful. I began to try to think of how to commit suicide that would not be traumatizing to whoever found me, but couldn’t come up with anything. So thank God, I didn’t.
Because of the horrible preaching I had heard that summer of 2012, I finally decided that I was going to read and study the Bible for myself, and not listen to any preaching, despite still going to church. (We all know it's not that hard to mentally check out of a sermon on Sunday.) I started reading it on my own with no one trying to tell me what their theology was so that I could really know for myself if God was hateful or if God was loving. I also decided, "Well, if I can't figure out a way to end it all, I need to figure out how to not let this thing beat me." So as time passed and I read the Bible and really scoured that thing, all I could see was God repeatedly saying “I love you; please come back to me! I love you; please come back to me!” Even with the Old Testament I was hit over and over with God’s voice imploring His people that He loves them and wants them to come back to Him. Because of this, even through the nightmares and the constant panic attacks, I began to very slowly open my heart to faith again.
I read Ian Morgan Cron’s book Chasing Francis, and I decided that maybe it was time for me to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani again. It was mid-August, 2012. So I took Brother Rene’s book with me. When I got out of the car after arriving, it was a weird feeling because God’s presence is so heavy there, which normally felt awesome. But if you’re not on great terms it feels awkward, like being alone in a waiting room with your ex or something. Anyway, I found Brother Rene’s grave, sat by it with the book he had given me, and cried for a long time. It was not a “feel good” afternoon, but it was a step in the right direction.
When I got home I decided that even if I had to live this way for the rest of my life like this feeling spiritually dead and having to deal with the mental anguish of PTSD, I’d rather live like there is a God who loves me, even if it’s fiction, than not to live like it at all. I called the Abbey and made reservations for a retreat there for me and my dad, and they had had a cancellation for the dates of September 17-21, so my dad and I got to go early.
September 17, 2012 at the Abbey was a rainy Monday. When we arrived, I prayed, “God, I feel like my soul and my mind and even my body has been ravaged by hell itself and left for dead. Teach me to be innocent again. Teach me to be a child again.” I hoped to feel like Brother Rene’s presence was there with me, but throughout the week, I honestly didn’t. But, each day was another step of renewal. While we were there, we noticed two men in the choir with the monks who were dressed in civilian clothing. One looked kind of gothic and severe, and the other looked like a Texas cowboy with cowboy boots and bow legs and a button down shirt. I thought to myself, "He's not going to last. Ain't no cowboy destined to be a monk." But by the end of the week, the gothic guy was gone, and the "cowboy" was still there.
My dad and I went to every single prayer service (even the 3:15am ones), and I gave a copy of Brother Rene’s book back to the Abbey (via Brother Paul Quenon - look him and his photography and poetry up) because I felt that they should have a copy of it, too. I spent a lot of time reading in their library and going for walks in the woods. I learned how to play the violin again without feeling like a wretch by the tree that splits at the bottom and reunites at the top.
The morning we were about to leave, we were packing up the car. Dad went in to get something else, and I was putting my suitcase in the trunk. Suddenly I felt like the Holy Spirit was with me, and like Brother Rene’s spirit was with me, and he said to me, “You wanted me to be with you this week, but I have been out in the woods and the fields teaching the little girl Gracie how to be a child again. And so now, I give her back to you. Take care of her, for she is now my child, too.” And suddenly, I KNEW that I was healed. The feeling of healing was so real, it even went into the physical aspect. Something physically snapped in my head. The feeling of being in an alternate reality went away. My head stopped the constant aching. The panic attacks and nightmares vanished. My spirit felt whole. I cannot explain it really, but it felt physically like two magnets came back together and snapped back into place.
Three years and a couple of romantic heartbreaks later, my mom and dad are scheduled for a retreat at the monastery. But my mom knew that I needed to go because at that point of my life I had experienced a season of heartbreak, so she gave up her spot for me to go (aren’t moms just awesome?). So again, my dad and I went on a retreat in October of 2015. At that time, I was being offered Rich Mullins' old job of teaching music on the Navajo reservation. But as much as I wanted that, the team was breaking up, and I would have had to go it alone. So during the visit at the Abbey, I prayerfully decided to let that opportunity go.
Being at the Abbey felt like being home again. Toward the end of the retreat, the Abbey hosted a professional organist who had requested to give a recital there because their organ is pretty freaking amazing, and so on a whim, I decided not to go hiking in the woods that afternoon and go to the organ concert instead. I need to point out that to have an organ recital at the Abbey is extremely rare, and it’s also pretty rare for the guests and the monks to mix in the seating arrangement. So, one seat down from me this really cute, younger monk sits down and we all enjoy the amazing recital. Definitely not the undertaker type of organ concert I had seen in college, haha.
After it was over, my dad was going around taking pictures of that area of the chapel because this was one of the rare times when non-monastic people can be in that area. So I was just standing back from the chapel, waiting for him to finish taking pictures before Vespers started, and the young, cute monk comes up to me and says, “Hi, my name is Brother Matthew,” and we shake hands and start talking. He says, “I feel like I’ve seen you here before.” And I told him that the last time I’d been there was in 2012. He said, “Oh, well I wasn’t a monk here then.” I told him that I had been a penpal with an older brother there named Brother Rene, and he said he had known him too. He said that Brother Rene was one of the main reasons he had become a monk there. We chatted for a minute or two more but the bell began to ring for Vespers, so I had to go back to the guest area for worship and he had to go back to his choir stall. We talked a bit more and walked down the long aisle of the church and finished up the conversation. When my dad and I sat down my dad whispered to me, “Now don’t you make him give up his vows.” I responded with a raspberry, as all daughters do when their dads make those kind of comments. After the service was over and the monks were leaving, Matthew smiled and waved a bit before he went out the door with all the others. I remember thinking he had a really beautiful smile. We had to leave the next morning, so that was pretty much that.
As soon as I got home, I wrote Matthew a letter. I told him the story of my healing and relationship to Brother Rene. He wrote back quickly and told more about his contact with Brother Rene.
Now here is where things start getting crazy.
Through our letters, we found out that Matthew had seen me before. I had arrived on retreat with my dad on September 17th, 2012, and Matthew had also arrived that very same day for his trial monastic observances. He had been the "cowboy" I'd seen in the choir stalls in 2012. And he had seen me carrying my violin case from the woods in 2012 and had sensed that I had been there for a need of healing, and he had prayed for me. I also found out that he was a Church of God pastor's kid, too! He had been born in Anderson, Indiana, where Anderson University is, and where my parents met. His grandfather was Dr. Eugene R. Sterner, who had a radio ministry at Anderson University that my parents had listened to when they were in college (my mom had a class at Anderson with Sandi Patty; just throwing that in there). So when my parents found out that he was Dr. Sterner’s grandson, they flipped out. We found out that we loved all the same genres of music, he sung Rich Mullins songs, had read and loved all the same books as I did, knew and loved all the same hymns, and generally had so much weird stuff in common that it was ridiculous. We both expressed that we felt a strange familiarity, as if we had known each other before. It was unusual in that it didn't feel like we were getting to know each other, it felt more like remembering someone we had known long ago somehow.
I found out that in the first three years of monastic life, at the anniversary of each year, you can make a commitment of another year. At the beginning of your fourth year, you decide to make solemn vows or not, and you may leave. I had met Matthew at the beginning of his third year, so he was committed for one more year. He told me this, and we honored his commitment. So we wrote letters and I made visits for the next year. Starting in December after we had met, I started driving the three hours up to visit him every other Saturday or Sunday, visit for three hours, and drive three hours back home. There were some tough letters before I had begun visiting where we had to share the rough parts of our lives and be completely honest about things past and present. Matthew laid everything out, completely honest with me. There is a nineteen-year age difference between us despite how young he looks, and he had to tell me about the painful parts of his life. I prayed, and moved forward. I honestly told him everything I could about myself. So by the time I started visiting, we both knew the good, the bad, and the ugly about each other. I’m so grateful that he wanted to be up front about everything and honor his year's commitment, and that meant a lot to me.
October 2016 came, when his year of vows was up. It was time for him to decide to permanently stay or go. He made his decision, and I busted him out of there. After Sunday morning Mass, he said goodbye to the brothers and the fathers he had come to know and love there, he changed out of his monastic habit into jeans and a button-up shirt, packed his duffle bag, and we drove home. That night at my church, we sang hymns together. It was really sweet to finally get to introduce him to everyone after a year of having to be pretty secret about the whole thing.
We got engaged in March of 2017, after he was finally able to get employed (apparently CAD drafting position bosses were not interested in a three-year hiatus / monastic experience where your job is making bourbon fudge, keeping tombstones clean, and working in a kitchen with a bunch of other voluntary bachelors). That season of job hunting for Matt was pretty tortuous. But he finally found employment, we got engaged, and were married on September 17, 2017, five years to the day we had both arrived at the Abbey on that rainy Monday. I married the cowboy monk.
I had always dreamt of being married outside, here at home. I had my dream wedding, walking down the aisle to the last movement of Beethoven's 6th Symphony; the movement subtitled, A shepherd's hymn of thanksgiving after the storm.
Life since then has been full of wonderful adventures, devastating heartbreaks, and all of the in-between. I've since had to let go of some more dreams I had held close, and so has Matthew. There has been a lot of laughter and tears. But these six years of being married to him have been the best years. We both have said that when we look back on the years before we knew each other, those years seem like a strange and distant dream.
This year in particular has been an interesting time of our life, in other ways seeming to come full-circle. I had picked Matthew up from a Catholic monastery and brought him to the Church of God, the denomination where he and I were both raised. And this past spring I became Catholic, joining him in that, too. We are an odd couple attending both churches on one Sunday morning! But we are so thankful for the heritage of being raised in the Church of God and how wonderful that upbringing was and the fruit in our lives it still bears. And it's now beautiful to partake of Mass together, and have that as another seal on our marriage. The calling for me to become Catholic came from a mixture of my healing story and also the seed of a dream falling to the ground and dying, but I believe that from that seed there will produce fruit that can be offered wholeheartedly to the Lord. He has been so good. I began Catholicism classes on the 10 year anniversary from the day I was healed at the Abbey, and my confirmation was the Easter of my 33rd year, the same as Jesus' age at His Passion and resurrection. St. Joan of Arc was my confirmation saint, after many years of reading her story and feeling a strange and familiar kinship to that particular sister in Christ. The book I had written when I was much younger had been about monks training young women to be like knights, so that part seems to have come full circle in my life as well. But all of this is for another blog, another day.
Here at the end, I feel that it would be appropriate to share lyrics from Rich Mullins, who died in a car accident a week before he was supposed to take his first communion in the Catholic church, who lived as a monk on the Navajo reservation, who deeply struggled with God, and who like all cowboys had a love of the American west:
I can feel the earth tremble
beneath the rumbling of the buffalo hooves
and the fury in the pheasant's wings...
It tells me that the Lord is in His temple
and there's still a faith that can make the mountains move,
and a love that can make the heavens ring;
I've seen love make heaven ring.
From the place where morning gathers,
you can look sometimes forever 'till you see
What time may never know...
How the Lord takes by its corners this old world
and shakes us forward and shakes us free
to run wild with the hope...
The hope that this thirst will not last long,
that it will soon drown in a song not sung in vain.
I feel the thunder in the sky,
I see the sky about to rain,
and with the prairies I am calling out Your name.